Duluth’s racial divide uncommonly wide

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Any way you look at it, Blacks are having a hard time prospering in the Northland.

As reported in the MSR April 23 issue (“Black poverty at 40% in Duluth”), the Duluth Anti-Racism Coalition released a report, Race Matters, revealing that 40 percent of African Americans in Duluth live below the poverty level. Nearly one in three city residents ‘struggle to get by on a daily basis’

This is in sharp contrast to just four percent of Duluth’s Whites living below the poverty threshold. It means that nearly half of the Black population in Duluth is bringing in less than $20,650 a year to support a family of four, forcing them to make difficult decisions nobody should have to make.

The Duluth Anti-Racism Coalition is made up of people representing various groups and organizations in Duluth and has a common interest of working toward racial justice in the Duluth community. While its Race Matters report was based on data collected from the 2000 census, many in the community know that nothing has changed since then.

The income disparity between Whites and Blacks is ongoing and begs the question,
“What is going on?”

“How anybody can look at these numbers and say that this is a chosen way of life, rather than a systemic force, is difficult for me to believe,” notes Bob Grytdahl, the City of Duluth’s human rights officer.

Racial gaps are Grytdahl’s topic. He works at Duluth City Hall and tries to inform and drive discussions about the city’s racial divide. But, as many people know, there’s not just a gap in annual income between Blacks and Whites; there are also gaps in educational achievement, home ownership and incarceration, just to name a few.

Grytdahl finds that a lot of his discussions aren’t well received, as people are uncomfortable talking about racism. Does he believe this reticence is a contributing factor to these disparities?

“Absolutely,” said Grytdahl. “One of the things I try to do is to get White people to discuss the issue. But the responses I get are often anger or judgment as to why these gaps exist.”

Grytdahl notes that statewide, high school graduation rates for Blacks have dipped over the years, along with the annual salary for Black families, while at the same time the number of Black felons has tripled.

“I’m really trying to generate curiosity, not anger or judgment. The racial gaps have never closed. They’ve always been that way. We need to see curiosity and change in public attitudes,” said Grytdahl.

Community Action Duluth is trying to generate that change in public attitudes through a multitude of programs it offers to the community. The organization is a public agency striving to eliminate poverty in Duluth by engaging the greater community along the way.

In Community Action’s recent report to the community, “Blueprint to End Poverty,” the agency noted that looking at Duluth’s population overall, nearly one in three people who live in Duluth struggle to get by on a daily basis.

Angie Miller, executive director of Community Action Duluth, notes in general that there are a lot more people living in poverty in Duluth compared to other parts of the state. Fifteen percent of the overall Duluth population is in poverty, compared to 7.5 percent of the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

But with regard to the 40 percent African American poverty rate, “This is terrible,” notes Miller. “There are a lot of reasons for this, but the one red flag that does come to mind is racism.”

The agency works toward its mission through a number of programs offered free of charge to the general public, including two separate programs that Xavier Bell and Allegra Henderson are spearheading.

Henderson helps people help themselves through the agency’s “Bridge to Employment” program. She assists African Americans in finding jobs, retaining those jobs, and developing long-term career goals to help them eventually earn a “livable wage.” She works with employers as well to help them find a good match for any available opportunities.

Community Action Duluth hired Henderson in January; since that time, six of her 10 applicants have become gainfully employed — no small feat in a depressed economy. But still, it’s a long leap from curbing that 40-percent poverty mark.

“Everybody has different feelings on why people are not employed,” said Henderson. “But there are definitely people who point to racism as the reason why they are not finding jobs. And it seems the longer they’ve been here, the more [inequality] they’ve experienced.”

Bell believes that building bridges with the community involves building relationships across socioeconomic and racial lines. He oversees the “Circles of Support” program, where members from different income levels, ages, genders and backgrounds meet monthly to provide positive connections and listen to individual triumphs and challenges.

Bell stresses that social isolation is a huge barrier for people in poverty. “When you are in poverty, very rarely are you asked your opinion on how to help the greater community,” said Bell. “How can a community be healthy if we’re working in silos but not really blossoming?”

Despite the challenges the northern community faces on inequality, organizations like the Duluth Anti-Racism Coalition and Community Action Duluth continue to move forward in their mission to bridge the racial divide, narrow racial gaps, and, most importantly, raise awareness to better the lives of those who are suffering the most.

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